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Nets Prospect Watch II: The kids are alright

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Brooklyn Nets v Washington Wizards Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In interviews this month, Kenny Atkinson talked about the positives, even the “super positives” he saw in the team’s losses ... the kids.

"I love how hard he plays. Good for him to see a few shots go down,” said Atkinson of Caris LeVert after the Cavs game. “That's a positive we get out of this game."

“I thought our young guys got a lot of good minutes towards the end,” he noted as well. “Anthony Bennett, Spencer Dinwiddie showed us some good things, so we gotta take some positives out of the game.”

Then on Monday night’s win over Charlotte, both before after the big win, he said a lot of same things about the Nets youth movement in general, about Isaiah Whitehead’s defense on Kemba Walker, about Caris LeVert’s progress.

After Friday night loss to the Wizards loss, the coach characterized LeVert this way: “Super positive. I just said that to our coaches, his energy, how hard he plays, how fast he is, his athleticism, how aggressive he is,’’ said Atkinson.

It’s part of the Nets strategy, focus not so much on those lost draft picks, but on how the Nets can recover to finding young prospects and develop them.

“Every guy we’ve signed for whatever reason, we’ve got to turn into a really good first-round pick. That’s the way we look at it,” Atkinson told Fred Kerber. “That [trade] is part of the past and it never really enters my mind.”

“The way I look at it is that Joe Harris is our draft pick, Justin Hamilton is our draft pick, Caris [LeVert] is our draft pick. That’s part of the past. Every guy we sign, we’ve got to help them turn into a first-round pick,” he added in an interview with Greg Logan.

So we’re taking an occasional look at the long list of players, drafted with picks acquired in trades, young players other teams have given up on them and others, from D-Leaguers to those who the Nets hold rights to, both NBA and D-League. We break them down from best bets to long, long shots.

Again, the Nets have no “sure things,” so far. No guaranteed All-Stars. So, we’re starting, as we did a month ago, with “best bets.”

Best Bets

Two athletic 6’7” wings who can play defense. We’ve switched them from last month. Levert is progressing quite fast.

—Caris LeVert, 22, in his rookie year with the Nets. Taken 20th in the 2016 NBA Draft by Indiana and traded to Brooklyn for Thaddeus Young (and a lot of cap space.) He’s finally getting into a rhythm as Atkinson said and showing off what he can do in short spurts. His awesome pass in traffic to Hollis-Jefferson for a two-handed dunk was a highlight of the Cavs’ game. His shots are starting to go down, building his confidence after a year off from basketball. He’s gone 6-of-15 from deep in last five games. But he’s not just a shooter. He’s shown he can pass, play defense and not make mistakes. A “superpositive,” says Atkinson.

—Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 21, in his second year with the Nets. Taken 23rd in the 2015 NBA Draft by Portland and traded to Brooklyn for Mason Plumlee. Probably none of the young players has done as much in the past month to solidify his position than RHJ. In the last five games, he’s been newly aggressive on offense, averaging 10.2 points per game. More importantly is his decision to end his seeming reluctance to shoot. In two of those games, he took 13 and 15 shots, respectively and against Charlotte, he went to the line 10 times, making eight. His rebounding numbers are stable of late, but his assists have gone down.

High Hopes

Two 21-year-olds with skills... and the Undrafted.

—Isaiah Whitehead, 21, in his rookie year with the Nets. Taken 42nd in the 2016 NBA Draft and traded to Brooklyn for the rights to Marcus Paige and $3 million in cash, the most the Nets ever paid for a draft pick. Atkinson likes what he brings and how he’s improved with time at the point in Jeremy Lin’s absence. Before going down with a sore foot, Whitehead had season highs in points (14) and assists (8). His three point shooting improved as well. On Monday, he made some rookie mistakes immediately after Lin left for the locker room, but recovered and played solid defense, blocking a Jeremy Lamb jumper at the end of the third, then wrestling the ball away from Frank Kaminsky early in the fourth. It’s increasingly unsurprising. NBA.com’s rookie ladder has ranked him as high as sixth in this year’s rookie class.

—Sean Kilpatrick, 26, in his second year with the Nets and third in the NBA. Sean Marks’ first signing and a good one. Kilpatrick was guaranteed the remainder of last season, all of this season and has a team option for next season, all at the vets minimum. At 6’4”, Kilpatrick is best suited for the 2, but has played the 1 and 3. Everytime it looks like he will revert to the mean, he blows up, like he did Monday night, scoring 23 points, including two clutch three’s in the Nets comeback. He is the second highest scoring undrafted player in the NBA, his 15.5 ppg just behind Wesley Matthews 15.8.

—Chris McCullough, 21, in his second year with the Nets. Taken 29th in the 2015 NBA Draft as part of the draft swap with the Hawks, the next-to-last piece of the Joe Johnson trade. McCullough is a record-setter, moving back and forth between the Long Island Nets and Brooklyn Nets, three times playing in the D-League and NBA on the same day. The Nets big development project, McCullough has played 16 games for the Long Island Nets and racked up some nice numbers, 19.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and shooting just below .500 overall, and hitting his three’s at 36.7 percent. He’s shown he can lead a team as well. Long Island has won four of the last six with him as their high scorer and best rebounder over that stretch.

Hopes

Four players looking for a home...

—Joe Harris, 25, is in his third year in the NBA, first with the Nets. Like four players on the team, he has a vets minimum deal this season, a team option next. A shooter who knows his place, Harris got his first start Monday night, replacing Bojan Bogdanovic. But he went scoreless and Bogdanovic came in and scored 26 points. Like the rest of the “hopefuls,” he’s looked good and bad. There have been games where he has looked like a bargain and a rotation player down the road, but others, not so much. He has sat out the last two games with a hip pointer and hadn’t scored in the two games before that, missing all six shots he took. His best game came just before his ankle woes slowed him. He had a career high of 19. So it’s hard to know what to expect. He’s had games where he’s shot 4-of-9, 5-of-8, 5-of-9 and 4-of-7 from deep. BUT he’s also games of 1-of-4 (three times), 1-of-5 (three times), 1-of-7 (once) and missed all his three’s four times. For a full analysis of what he can do, we recommend Nick Agar-Johnson’s The Joe Harris Experiment.

—Anthony Bennett, 23, or as he’s often referred to, “still only 23.” in his first year with the Nets, his fourth year in the league. He has a vets minimum deal, with a team option next season. Patience, young skywalker. We can go through all the “draft bust” data, or point you to Fred Kerber’s piece earlier this month on his slow-motion development. The Nets are taking it slow with Bennett. The question is have they given up? He did not play in the last three games, even in the blowout loss to Washington. He had started to show progress. He had 11 points in the loss to Cleveland, eight points and 10 rebounds in the loss to the Raptors. If you want to know how patient the Nets will be, read his contract. His team option isn’t up until Opening Night of next season, giving Sean Marks plenty more time to evaluate him ... or dump him at minimal cost.

—Justin Hamilton, 26, in his first year with the Nets, third year in the NBA. He’s the second oldest guy on this list. Sean Kilpatrick is older. Has a two-year guaranteed deal at $3 million each. After shooting well early in the season, he’s been in a slump, shooting 10.2 percent (not a typo) from deep in December after hitting 43.9 percent in November. His ability to hit the three is critical for a back-up 5 in Atkinson’s system. He’s also been troubled by migraine headaches lately, missing six games last month. Is the slump related to the migraines?

—Spencer Dinwiddie, 23, in his first year with the Nets, third year in the NBA. Signed to a three year, non guaranteed vets minimum deal that has all sorts of team options and trigger dates. The Nets can dump him before January 10 at a cost of $100,000. Still learning the system, he’s had a couple of good games, but DNP’d against Charlotte. He’s proved he can score, at least in garbage time, going for 14 points and one assist in 22 minutes vs. Toronto and 13 and three in 23 minutes vs. Cleveland. He has not yet proven he can distribute at the NBA level and his three point shooting with the Windy City Bulls hasn’t carried over to the Nets. He’s shooting a mere 20 percent from three since being called up. Will he last beyond this week?

Dreams

The “D” in D-League doesn’t stand for Dreams but it may as well. The Long Island Nets have been playing well of late (See Chris McCullough above). So there is some talent.

—Yogi Ferrell, 23, an NBA free agent after the Nets waived him in favor of Dinwiddie last month. Undrafted in the 2016 NBA Draft, he was signed immediately after the second round ended. Then, it was a cycle of good news bad news for the Indiana grad. He was the last player cut, then after a short stint with Long Island, he was called up after Greivis Vasquez was waived. After a few weeks, as a Net, Ferrell was waived so the Nets could sign Dinwiddie. Now back in Long Island. He’s doing well in Ronald Nored’s system, mostly playing off-guard with Donnie McGrath, the 32-year-old veteran at the point. He is now the Long Island Nets secong leading scorer, averaging one-tenth of a point behind McCullough, 19.5 to 19.6. He’s shooting 47 percent overall, 40 percent from three. In the last game, he set a Long Island record with 34 points, including 6-of-8 from three. Great numbers, but at 6-foot tall, he’s unlikely to be a lead guard in the NBA.

—Trahson Burrell, 24, an NBA free agent whose D-League rights are held by Long Island. THE surprise of the young Nets. Taken in the second round of the 2016 D League draft, puts up double-double from the small forward spot with great regularity. He’s had eight double-doubles in 19 games and in five of those games, he recorded at least five assists. He’s had games of 24 and 15; 21 and 10; 19 and 11; 14 and 15; 16 and 13. A hyper athlete out of Memphis, Burrell is a survivor. Will he make it to the NBA? Hard to predict, but he’s got some time ... and a lot of will power. He could use some muscle.

In our last Prospect Watch, we also listed Beau Beech, Egidijus Mockevicius, Carrick Feliz and Boris Dallo. Felix got hurt, lost his starting job to Burrell and is only now back. Mockevicius (shoulder) has been out for 12 games. Ferrell has pushed Dallo to the bench. And Beau Beech has been frustratingly inconsistent. The team is better but other than McCullough, Ferrell and Burrell, none seem like NBA prospects. Not now anyway.

Long shots (from far away)

The Nets hold their rights, but don’t look for them in black-and-white...

—Juan Pablo Vaulet is in Brooklyn, so that’s progress. He has been for five days, according to Argentine reports. The Nets won’t confirm he’s working out with their staff, nor grant access. It is the first visit he’s made since Sean Marks took over basketball operations last February. According to Argentine hoops sites, Vaulet arrived in New York last Tuesday and fly back this Tuesday, taking advantage of a break in Argentina’s Liga Nacional. The Nets want to know what they’ve got, Vaulet wants to know what they think of him. By all accounts a good kid —he’s still only 20— who plays hard. At 6’7”, Vaulet can only play the wing in the NBA, but at this point in his career, he is not a good shooter. So far, this season in Argentina (not a great testing ground), his first without injury in the last three, he’s averaging 10.0 points in 24 minutes per game, shooting 54 percent from two-point range, 25.8 percent from three and only 54 percent from the stripe. He’s very athletic, despite two foot surgeries, and long, his wing span reported at better than 7-foot. The Nets old regime gave up two second rounders (to Charlotte) and $880,000 for him, swearing he was “the next Manu.” Luis Scola thinks he has a chance, at the NBA, telling NetsDaily, “He's a very good player. I really mean it. He has a few areas of his game he has to work on but he's extremely young. He really wants to work. His mind is in the right place. I do believe in him. He needs some work but he knows.”

—As we said last time, Jamaal Franklin is on this list mainly for fun. The 6’5” San Diego State product was taken by Long Island in the D-League expansion draft back in September. The Nets knew he was bound for China, where he makes $1.4 million a year but wanted his rights just in case he decided to play in the D-League once the CBA season was over. He had averaged 33.9 points a game for Shanxi Zhongyu in China a year ago. Well, since then, the pick seems to have been a smart move. He’s slowed down a little since we last looked. He’s averaging only 36.3 points, down from 40.4 He’s had games of 61 and 60, the latter a triple-double and has been the CBA’s Player of the Week four times out of 13. Do NOT get too excited. It’s the CBA. The two players above him in the leading scorer race are Jimmer Fredette and MarShon Brooks. He is still the CBA leader in assists and steals. Problem is that when he’s played elsewhere, the numbers haven’t been anywhere nearly as good. Also, the Nets only hold his D-League rights, not his NBA rights. Would he want to risk injury at the end of the season in the D-League and jeopardize his international career? We don’t know the answer, but we will continue to follow him, if only for fun.

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We don’t include Bojan Bogdanovic in this list. He turns 28 in April and is an expiring contract. He does average more than anyone on this list, shoots better, too, at 44.2 percent overall, 35.3 from deep. And he is durable, the only starter to play in every game.